“This is a day of celebration.”
Those were among the first words Maj. Gen. William Haan, commander of the 32nd Division, wrote to his wife Margaret the evening of Nov. 11, 1918, hours after the armistice ending “the war to end all wars” took effect.
Even though the 32nd Division did not begin combat until May 1918, six months later they were battle-hardened and determined, having participated in the Marne, Oise-Aisne and Meuse-Argonne campaigns. Haan wrote about the start of the final day of battle of World War I, east of the Meuse River:
“At 6:30 officers in command of the take-off line were issuing their last instructions; fifteen minutes later they were looking at their wrist watches, not with the tense excitement which characterized the approach of zero hour on the Vesle, not with the savage elation with which they waited for their turn in the tremendous smashes at the foe at Juvigny, not with the grim determination with which they entered each succeeding struggle in the Argonne, but with the calm deliberation of veterans who had a day’s work ahead of them, a day’s work the like of which they had done before and which they knew just how to, a disagreeable, dangerous day’s work; but well — it was all in a day’s work — c’est la Guerre [this is war]!
“Five minutes to seven! The men started to stir around, getting a toe-hold for the take-off, shaking their equipment into place, gripping their guns. Seven o’clock and some of them were off, over the top. Others had been stopped just in the nick of time, and after the advancing skirmish lines of those who had gotten away went panting runners from headquarters with the magic words: FINIS LA GUERRE! [The war is finished!]”
Haan relayed to his wife the difficulty of reeling in Red Arrows fired in combat.
“That was some job, too,” he wrote. “We got it stopped entirely at 10:45, just 15 minutes before the armistice went into effect. One of my chaplains was killed at 10:40. Hard luck!”
The great European conflagration that was World War I was the unforgiving proving ground on which the 32nd Division literally and figuratively made a name for itself. By piercing every enemy line, including the vaunted Hindenburg Line, the division — formed from 15,000 Wisconsin National Guard and 8,000 Michigan National Guard Soldiers at Camp MacArthur in Waco, Texas on July 18, 1917 — earned its enduring nickname, the Red Arrow. And its fierce fighting and battlefield successes on Aug. 5-6, 1918 moved General Pairron de Mondesir — commander of the 38th French Corps to which the 32nd Division was then attached — to exclaim, “Oui, oui, les soldats terrible, tres bien, tres bien!”
In English, that translates as “Yes, yes, terrible soldiers, very good, very good!” (The definition of terrible applied here is formidable, terrifying, exciting extreme alarm or intense fear.) Mondesir’s appraisal of the 32nd Division led General Emmanuel Mangin to specifically request “Les Terribles” to join his famous 10th French Army shock troops. The nom-de-guerre was made official in a citation following the battle at Juvigny, and the 32nd Division was the only American division given a nickname by an allied nation during the war.
The spark that set Europe ablaze occurred June 28, 1914, when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo. In the following days, the Austria-Hungary Empire presented a list of demands to Serbia with the intent of justifying a war. Knowing that a war with Serbia would invite conflict with Serbian ally Russia, Austria-Hungary sought assistance from Germany. One month after the assassination in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and Russia mobilized to aid its ally. On Aug. 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia and entered a secret alliance treaty with the Ottoman Empire. Over the next three days Germany invaded Luxembourg and Belgium and declared war on France. Britain declared war on Germany and the United States declared neutrality.
Over the next two months, numerous declarations of war — some as far away as Japan — were issued. The United States ended its neutrality in April 1917 after it learned of Germany’s attempt to enter an alliance with Mexico against the U.S. Due to laws at that time prohibiting the National Guard from deploying overseas, units were discharged from the National Guard and drafted into the Army. While the 32nd Division was away, Brig. Gen. Orlando Holway, Wisconsin adjutant general, formed and commanded the Wisconsin State Guard.
Haan declared Nov. 11, 1918 a day of celebration, and in the sense that some of the most horrific fighting in the history of mankind — the advent of chemical warfare, aerial combat, submarine attacks and armored tanks — had swiftly drawn to a close, it was an appropriate declaration.
But the scars from the first world war never properly healed. Meanwhile, the 32nd Division deactivated, the Wisconsin National Guard was reactivated by 1921, and the Red Arrow Division reorganized as a Wisconsin and Michigan National Guard infantry unit. But a mere two decades after the armistice of 1918 went into effect, Europe once again would plunge into a world war, and the 32nd Division would eventually return to the field of battle.
The 32nd Division would be called upon one more time, for the 1961 Berlin Crisis. The Division was deactivated in 1967, but its legacy lives on today in the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. And since Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the Wisconsin National Guard has answered the nation’s call multiple times, adding thousands to the ranks of America’s veterans.
But the Wisconsin National Guard’s 32nd Division had a front-row seat to the original, historic day that is commemorated today as Veterans Day.